The Charleston Area Justice Ministry didn’t like the answer Mayor John Tecklenburg gave them Monday night.
So they asked him five more times.
The question was whether the Charleston mayor would direct — well, force — Police Chief Greg Mullen to participate in a task force that would reduce the number of investigatory traffic stops ... and have this plan in place by June 1, or about six weeks from now.
Tecklenburg said “No” each time, and the Justice Ministry amped up the tension by continuing to grill him. The mayor didn’t give in.
He tried to explain that there was no agreement on what “investigatory stops” actually are, that the Justice Ministry statistics included every stop that didn’t result in a ticket. The mayor said he wouldn’t tell his officers to not do their jobs — or write more tickets.
Tecklenburg said he was concerned about civil rights and better community relations with the police, and committed to making things better.
But the crowd at the Nehemiah Action Assembly probably didn’t get all that because they turned Teck’s microphone off after 30 seconds.
The Justice Ministry, a diverse group of area churches, means well. They want to cut down on arrests in local schools and end racial discrimination in police practices. Those are noble goals.
The trouble is they want to debate this public policy in a game-show format. And these issues are far too complex to distill down to 30-second sound bites.
The Justice Ministry says it gets this format from the Bible, which is a pretty good argument for a separation of church and state.
Public officials are pulled onto stage, confronted with an audience of 2,000 chanting “Stop arresting, start restoring” — which, let’s face it, is kind of Orwellian — and asked to make major policy decisions with a one-word answer.
They explain beforehand that tension is good, that this format forces public officials to be accountable.
No one would argue against putting elected leaders on the spot. That’s what we are supposed to do. But the Justice Ministry starts from a flawed premise: that they are absolutely right about everything they do and recommend.
Other people have studied these issues far longer and don’t have all the answers. What makes the Justice Ministry so sure they’re right?
For instance, they note that Charleston and North Charleston pull over four times as many motorists as Columbia police, so it’s automatically bad. But they fail to mention Columbia has a significantly higher rate of violent crime.
Is that coincidence or better policing down here? Truth is, it’s probably more complicated than that — which is why such a simple question-and-one-word-answer session makes so little sense.
Yes, the Walter Scott shooting made it painfully clear there are problems in policing. But it’s unfair to paint all officers with that broad brush, or assume that if you’re pulled over for a busted tail light the cop is a storm trooper looking to arrest you.
And yes, there are too many arrests in public schools. Kids get a police record these days for doing things that, a while back, would have simply warranted a sore backside or a few hours in detention.
In Justice Ministry material, there are examples of how “Carlos” is treated in a zero-tolerance education system versus a restorative practices-based program when he is, say, late to school or gets into a fight in the cafeteria. They talk about building relationship skills, mediating and all sorts of new age, feel-good ideas. Strategies for getting to school on time? Really?
And what about respect for your elders? Isn’t that a biblical idea?
The problem is this restorative stuff begins with the assumption that little Carlos is capable of rational assessment, that he’s not just a punk with a smart mouth who won’t do his schoolwork or listen to his teacher.
Tea party politics have shown this my-way-or-the-highway approach doesn’t accomplish much. It’s a road map to gridlock.
So don’t blame North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey or local police chiefs for not attending Monday night’s Nehemiah Action Assembly. They know there’s no room for debate in such a format.
The Justice Ministry is not wrong about the problems in this community, but assuming that someone is against solving them because they won’t agree to hire a certain consultant for $100,000 is laughably simplistic, and a naïve view of politics.
Even School Board member Chris Collins, who said “yes” to everything thrown at him, noted that these ideas cost a lot of money.
“You guys know we’re in a budget crisis, right?” Collins said.
The wheels of social justice move too slow, but that’s because the issues are complex and are not always black and white.
Tecklenburg knew what these folks were going to ask going in, and had the guts to show up and tell an entire sanctuary exactly what they didn’t want to hear.
That’s because he knows “yes” or “no” is not the answer to everything.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.